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Stand Up to Bullies

Bullying at all scales causes much suffering. What can we do?

Source: SLSMPL/Pixabay

Is anyone being pushed around?

The Practice:
Stand up to bullies.


Humans are the most social species on the planet. Most of us spend most of our lives working, eating, sleeping, and playing in groups that range in size from two people all the way up to nations and humanity as a whole.

Woven through the tapestry of our relationships are several major threads. One of these is power, which plays out in almost every group of any size. The only question is, do we use it for good or ill?

Like a hammer, power itself is neutral. It can be used justly and wisely for beneficial purposes, such as the necessary authority of a loving parent, a child’s popular friend protecting her from mean kids, a physically stronger spouse helping a more vulnerable one, or a government defending a country being invaded. Power can also be used unjustly and unwisely for harmful purposes, such as a parent beating a child, a big kid picking on a little one, domestic violence, or a government jailing its critics.

Depending on the situation, the unjust and unwise use of power can be called a variety of things: intimidation, abuse, fraud, discrimination, and tyranny to name a few. For my purposes here, I’ll pick a term that’s down-to-earth and gets at our deep human nature as social primates: bullying.

Bullying and bullies are widespread. At all scales, from homes and schoolyards to boardrooms and presidential palaces, they create a vast amount of human suffering. What can we do?


In this short space, I’ll offer some summary suggestions. You can help them be concrete by applying them to bullies you’ve experienced or observed.

See It
If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck ... it’s probably a duck. Bullies have most if not all of these identifying characteristics:

  • Dominating – Have to be the “alpha”; fear of looking “one-down”; thus must find targets who seem weaker; no compassion
  • Defensive – Never wrong; fault and scorn others; avoid personal responsibility
  • Deceptive – Manipulate grievances to gain support; blame scapegoats; cheat; hide truth since power is based on lies

Recognize Enablers
Some people and organizations make use of bullies, sort of like profiting from a crime someone else commits. Or they pretend all is normal, or that a relatively small issue to the side is a more important focus than what the bully is doing. Or they try to justify bullying, such as: “both sides do it,” “but she’s your mother,” “kids are like that,” or “they need a tough CEO.” From playgrounds to parliaments, people with an authoritarian personality style often have an affinity for bullying leaders, and commonly form the core of their supporters.

Protect Yourself
Sometimes you are stuck with a bully – perhaps a parent, older sibling, group of kids in school, abusive partner, or terrible boss in a job you can’t leave. Be careful. You may need to bide your time, weigh your options, and find an exit strategy as best you can. First of all, do no harm — to yourself. Every suggestion I offer here is in this context.

Have Compassion
The mind of a bully is like a hell realm of fended-off weakness and shame always threatening to invade. Lots of suffering there. Compassion for a bully is not approval. It is calming and strengthening, and establishes an inner freedom: “You may have my family/schoolyard/company/etc., but you will never have my mind.”

And of course, the targets of bullies deserve our care: much much much suffering there. Even if you can do nothing to change their lot, your compassion is still authentic; it matters to you, and it may matter to others in ways you’ll never know.

Name It
Tell the truth to yourself. Tell it to others.

And if appropriate, tell the truth to bullies and their enablers. This might get at some of the essence: “You are a bully. You may have power over me but you couldn’t earn it fairly, so you cheated and lied to get it. You might be able to harm me, but I am not afraid of you. I see what you are.”

Bullies may acquire institutional authority but never moral legitimacy. They know their power is unjust and fragile. The more uneasy they feel, the more they wrap themselves in the trappings of religious righteousness, flag-waving, wealth, or popularity. Name the lie, name the cheat, name the illegitimacy.

Stand with Others
Bullies target lone individuals or minority groups to prove their dominance and create fear. So gather allies who will stand with you if you’re being bullied. For example, a teacher was harassing our daughter (and we found out, girls in general), so we reached out to other parents and enlisted the aid of the principal; things changed.

And together, stand with and for those who are bullied. It may make no material difference. But it always makes a moral and psychological difference to those who stand — and to those they stand for.

Punish Bullying
I mean “punish” in the sense of creating disincentives, not cruelty or vengeance, not bullying bullies. Sure, first try persuasion. But the act of bullying itself is rewarding to a bully, even if there’s no concrete benefit. It’s like pulling a pleasurable lever on a slot machine that sometimes delivers a jackpot: if you’re a bully, why not keep pulling? So there must be a cost. Enablers also need to pay a price; otherwise, why stop?

Since bullying is common, people have developed a variety of ways to punish it. Depending on the situation, you could:

  • With moral confidence, name the bullying for what it is
  • Dispute false claims of legitimacy
  • Laugh at bullies (who are usually thin-skinned)
  • Confront lies, including denial of harms they’re doing
  • Build up sources of power to challenge the bully’s
  • Confront enablers; they’re complicit in bullying
  • Go up the ladder of authority (e.g., involve a school principal)
  • Engage the legal system
  • Remove bullies from positions of power

Bullies do often stop bullying, or do it on a much smaller scale. Sometimes there is a complete and admirable change of heart. When possible and appropriate, we can offer opportunities for a former bully to rejoin the group, and use power justly and wisely.

See the Big Picture
Bullying happens in a larger context of enabling and fueling conditions. The playing field might have become unfairly tilted in the bully’s favor; tilt it back. Bullies often draw power from the grievances of others; address the grievances, and reduce their power.

Bullies grab attention much as they compel us in other ways. But there is a larger world beyond their control. It contains so many things that are working, enjoyable, beautiful, and virtuous. Disengage as much as possible from repetitive loops of helpless outrage, fantasies of payback, and fault-finding others “who aren’t doing enough.” Bad enough that the bully is out there in the world. Try not to let the bully invade your mind and stay there.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author.